Gatherings & Celebrations: Carnival in New Orleans - #110

Carnival has its roots in an ancient Roman holiday called the Feast of Saturn.  It was used as an escape valve to help reduce the tensions between the Rich And Famous and the Never To Be Rich And Famous.  It created an outlet for the frustrations of a major part of the society.  There were many more Roman slaves than there were Roman rulers.  The Feast of Saturn  distracted the slaves from doing the math and trying to take control.  When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Feast of Saturn was converted into Carnival.  The last day of Carnival became known as Fat Tuesday, or in French... Mardi Gras.  It’s the last opportunity for the Catholic community to live it up before the forty days of Lent that are marked with fasting and abstinence.  Carnival was imported to the new world by the original French and Spanish settlers.  Even today, many of the rituals of the New Orleans Mardi Gras are the same ones that are followed in France and Spain. The ethnic origins of New Orleans are still here, still respected, and still presented as dramatically as ever.

Mardi Gras in New Orleans is packed with the ancient and traditional elements of Carnival.  And one of the most important ingredients is the theme of importing something from some other time or place. One way to take in something from someplace else is to bring up The Past.  The past usually feels like it’s in some other place, and during Carnival it is constantly dragged out and put on view.  Most of the Krewes have names from the past, taken from Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythology.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The earliest forms of Carnival go all the way back to ancient Rome.  They were designed to keep the masses happy and in line and amused.  And one of the ways they did that was to throw things to them.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  In New Orleans hundreds of thousands of plastic necklaces and coins called doubloons are flung from the floats to the crowds below.  The town is filled with people walking about wearing the necklaces, and fingering the coins that they have managed to catch during the ritual.  It was designed as a way of letting everyone feel that they are getting, or at least have an opportunity of getting, a piece of The Good Life.  The guys on the floats have everything they want.  They are “up there,” moving through life.  The watchers, on the other hand, are more or less locked in place, watching life go by.  It is hoped that the distribution of the trinkets will help keep the watchers amused and in place.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  It’s a perfect Carnival joke.  It celebrates the American myth of equal opportunity and success through the accumulation of material wealth -- and yet at the very same time it makes fun of it.  And that’s what Carnival is all about -- making fun of those things which are normally respected.

The first documented Carnival processions in New Orleans, with masks in the street, took place in 1837.  It developed out of a mixture of French, Spanish and Portuguese traditions, African rituals and the masked balls that were held by the aristocratic families of the Confederacy.  In many cases, the pageants of the past were hard-hitting and made fun of life in New Orleans.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Over the years, there’s been a change in the content of the festival.  These days a New Orleans Mardi Gras float is most likely to make fun of something that is safe, something that is already in the process of being joked about.  It’s a distinct feature of North American culture to institute change without revolution, and these days the New Orleans Mardi Gras functions within that format.  It’s a lot like the cooking -- hot and spicy, but not so hot or so spicy as to offend the millons of tourists who come here each year.

It’s just spicy enough to get you thinking about maybe making little changes in your own recipes.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The end of the Christmas season is January 6th, which is also known as Twelfth Night, Epiphany, or Kings’ Day.  It may be the end of the Christmas season, but it’s the beginning of a new period called Shrovetide. 

The last Monday of Shrovetide is known as Collop Monday, and the traditional foods for that day are eggs fried on top of bacon.  Bacon and eggs were two of the most common foods that were given up for Lent and this was a last official time for their preparation.  Jeff Tunks, who is the executive chef of the Windsor Court Hotel in New Orleans, takes a rather untraditional approach to the bacon-and-eggs of Collop Monday.

JEFF TUNKS:  ...and as I said, this is almost similar to a, very much like a quiche recipe, I would say, you know.  And in fact, we have a ramekin here; you can do it in a ramekin, you can do this in a normal quiche-type pie mold... Basically you just whip up your eggs, nine eggs, and you’re gonna add just one quart of heavy cream.  This is our “spa custard,” we call it.

BURT WOLF:   Oh, yes.

JEFF TUNKS:  Typical of New Orleans-type spa food here.  Yes, this is the home of low-cal cooking, as they say.  Just gonna beat this up to a nice custard mix. Gonna add a little bit of kosher salt just to season the custard...

BURT WOLF:   Why kosher salt?

JEFF TUNKS:  I just -- I think it’s just got a better feel to it; it’s easier to season when you’re using your fingers to it.  It’s more of a pure salt flavor.  We’re gonna make the egg custard into the actual egg itself.  I’ve got this medieval tool here that we get at any Williams-Sonoma, very, very cheap; it’s about --

BURT WOLF:   It looks like Mickey!

JEFF TUNKS:  It looks like Mickey until you press Mickey’s ears; then it looks like Evil Mickey almost; it’s got the teeth here.  We take the fine point of the egg and just top it like that and just pour out the egg itself like that.  And this is the actual egg that we use for the custard mix itself -- without the shells, of course.

BURT WOLF:   If I don’t have an egg cutter, what do I use?

JEFF TUNKS:  Very carefully you would just take maybe just a sharp knife and just pop it around the sides here; it’s not quite as clean of a cut, but it does do the same thing.  And you would have to just sort of clean up with your fingers some of the loose errant shell.  And you would have basically the same --

BURT WOLF:   Fine.  Okay.

JEFF TUNKS:  -- not quite as even, but it’s pretty easy.  The way I cook these, I save the carton that it came in.  And so it keeps them steady.  We’re gonna take just the prosciutto julienne there -- pretty much to your liking how much you want to add -- and so after you add the prosciutto we’re gonna add a little bit, just of the crumbled Stilton cheese, one of my favorite cheeses.  And if you don’t have Stilton cheese, you can use any kind of, you know, good quality blue-veined cheese.  Goat cheese would be fine here, too.  It’s really, like I said, up to your personal taste and your product availament [sic] in your area there.  And then we’re just gonna take this, the goose-neck, and we’re just gonna fill ‘em up to almost the top.  And then to finish cooking this -- it’s very easy to cook -- we take a, just a hotel pan that fits it, we put the whole carton of eggs in the hotel pan, and we take some hot water and fill it up.  Basically we want to do a hot water bath so it doesn’t scorch the custard mixture.  And you want to fill it up -- the carton gets soaked; that’s no problem, it holds up pretty well.  Cover it with just some good aluminum foil, and I put this in a slow oven, probably around 275, for twenty to twenty-five minutes.  And you can check it like checking a cake, you can always test it with a toothpick or a jiglette, see it’s got some firmness to it.  And then we serve a very small espresso-style demitasse spoon with it, so that you can freely remove all the contents from the egg.

BURT WOLF:   That’s the best presentation of bacon and eggs I’ve ever seen.

JEFF TUNKS:  Well, good.

The Windsor Court Hotel is considered by many to be one of the finest hotels in the United States.  Most of their rooms are actually suites... the swimming pool and health club are in a class by themselves... the walls of its public areas are covered with museum-quality art... and the artistic quality of its restaurant, The Grill Room, is highly respected.  Pastry Chef Kurt Ebert further proves the point as he prepares a classic New Orleans recipe -- pralines!

KURT EBERT:  We are starting with about five ounces of butter.  The butter will have to be melted first before I put the cream and the sugar in.  This is a half a quart of cream, or two cups.  At this stage I can add my sugar to it, and I’ll be adding brown sugar first; it doesn’t matter, and this is one pound.  One pound of brown sugar, and we also add one pound of white sugar.

BURT WOLF:   Okay.

KURT EBERT:  I will be adding a little bit of vanilla beans to it.  If you don’t have any vanilla beans, a lot of people have this Mexican vanilla essence --

BURT WOLF:   -- vanilla extract --

KURT EBERT:  -- the extract and stuff like that.  Some people put vanilla beans in their ventilation system.

BURT WOLF:   In the ventilation system?

KURT EBERT:  It makes the house smell really wonderful.

BURT WOLF:   I’ll put ‘em in my socks and see what it does there.

KURT EBERT:  Oh, God.  (laughter)  And that is it; now all I have to do is wait for the cooking, because you do have to get the temperature right before your nuts to it.  I can actually try to test it, I’ll do this test...  A nice plate, a white, straight plate, and you drop some on here.  So this cools down immediately, and you can look how it’s running.


KURT EBERT:  So you don’t have to use your finger, you don’t have a thermometer, so do the old-fashioned plate test.  And this is not done yet, it’s too...

BURT WOLF:   It’s too much moisture in there --

KURT EBERT:  It’s getting there, it’s getting there, you see?  See what it does?

BURT WOLF:   Ahh.  It’s beginning.

KURT EBERT:  Like it’s not supposed to be runny.  But I think I’m getting close.  See the bubbles, how different they are from a minute ago?  They’re more -- it’s almost like a volcano kind of thing.  It’s correct, it’s time to proceed.  It is approximately two pounds, and I’m just adding them in until I think it’s the right amount.  So it’s really important that you pre-toast them first.  Every nut is basically fat, oil.  So you’re toasting it to reduce the oil of the nut, and you enhance and bring out the flavor of every nut.

BURT WOLF:   Interesting -- so when I toast a nut, I reduce the amount of oil, it vaporizes, and I get a concentrated flavor.

KURT EBERT:  That’s right, ‘cause the pecans will not really cook in this batter; they’ll just be coated in it.  So you pre-cook them.  Transferring it onto the cookie sheet, you can either use two spoons or one spoon.  They’re very shiny and almost translucent at this point.  Now, this is one method.  Some people are more comfortable using two spoons.  So you go in with one spoon, and you take the other one and you sort of turn it out like that.  Because you cannot touch it with your hands, it’s way too hot.

BURT WOLF:   And how long do they sit?

KURT EBERT:  It’ll take about, I would think, half an hour, forty-five minutes, and they’ll be ready for feasting.

Pralines are a signature food in New Orleans, along with jambalaya, blackened fish, beignets, remoulades -- but there’s only one food that is specifically unique to Mardi Gras... King Cake. 

For hundreds of years, both in France and in New Orleans, King Cake was traditionally served at a ball that was given on the Twelfth Night of Christmas.  It marked the beginning of the Carnival Season.  It’s made of a rich, yeasty dough and decorated with sugar that has been dyed in the official Mardi Gras colors.  Green symbolizes faith, the gold stands for power, and the purple for justice.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  At the stroke of midnight everybody would sit down around a table and have a piece of cake and a cup of champagne punch.  Hidden inside the cake was a token -- it could have been a bean, or a nut, or a porcelain baby doll.  Whoever got the token became the reigning monarch.  If it was a man, he would choose his queen, if it was a woman she would choose her king.  And they would reign for a week.  At the end of the week, a new king and queen would be chosen through the same ritual.  Very often in a Creole home you will find an old jewelry box, and inside the box will be a porcelain baby doll -- a reminder of the time when they were the King or Queen of a carnival party.

To say that the King Cake tradition was still alive would be an extraordinary understatement.  Each year well over one million of these cakes are sold, and they have become so popular that the bakers produce them all year long and actually ship them all over the world.  This is Haydel’s Bakery in New Orleans, and it’s quite special.  In addition to the plastic baby doll in the cake, there is a porcelain collector’s doll.  And in one cake each week, there is a certificate that can be exchanged for a solid gold King Cake Baby.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  If you ever end up at a carnival party and your piece of cake doesn’t contain the token that makes you king or queen, don’t feel too bad.  Along with the right to become king or queen, you also get the responsibility to organize and pay for next week’s party.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Good food and good restaurants are clearly important in New Orleans.  But how did these traditions get started?  Well, it appears that there were two major events influencing their development.  The first was the French Revolution that took place in the late 1700s, during which thousands of nobles had their heads cut off -- leaving thousands of French chefs with nobody to cook for.  They heard about a French-speaking colony in the New World called New Orleans, and they headed over.  The second event took place in the early 1800s, and it was a massive slave rebellion in the French colonies in the Caribbean.  The French were terrified, and they headed to New Orleans for safety.  So within a decade or two, thousands of Frenchmen showed up in New Orleans and started doing their traditional cookin’.

At the same time, the town was coming into a period of economic growth.  People were getting rich.  Now for some folks, one of the problems of acquiring wealth is that it doesn’t feel good just to have it. They need to show it.  And one of the ways they did that in New Orleans was to get out to a famous restaurant.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  If you didn’t show up at an important local restaurant two or three times a week, people in the social set began to think that maybe you were running out of money.  Eating out in a restaurant was a key opportunity to show that you were still in the chips and to see who else was in there with you.  The tradition has remained part of New Orleans life -- if ya got it, get out and show it.

Carnival has always been a place where ordinary people who had very little chance to be creative in their everyday lives could suddenly display their imagination.  The Mardi Gras Indians are a perfect example of people using Carnival to show their amazing creativity. The Mardi Gras Indians are groups from the black community who call themselves “tribes,” and wear costumes inspired by the dress of the American Indian.  Larry Bannock is Chief of the Golden Star Hunters.

LARRY BANNOCK:   Basically I taught myself.  Over twenty-four years you just get better and better, you know.  Every year you learn something different.  There never was the Indian suit that was completed.  I mean, Mardi Gras morning, time is short, money is funny and everybody’s looking at you -- “Let’s go, let’s go!”  So you put it on.  But one of these suits, they’ve never been finished.  There’s always something else you could do to add on, you could add on. 

BURT WOLF:   You think there’s one message that the Indian sends to everybody when they see him?

LARRY BANNOCK:   Well... all I can speak for is the message I send.  When I do a patch, I do a patch because I want it to have a meaning and a purpose.  It’s like a spiritual thing.  It’s like this patch here.  When I do a patch I pay respect to the red man for what they did for us.  But then again, you look at the red man culture, the black man culture -- when we were slaves, the red men were the first to accept us as men.  So this is just a way of paying respect to them.  ...  A lot of times people think Indians are just a bunch of guys putting on a costume, but this is a ritual or a culture that starts in September and goes all the way to Mardi Gras day.  A lot of people don’t know the heartaches and the pain and headaches that you go through to do this, I mean... it’s no fun, believe me.

BURT WOLF:   Then why do you do it?

LARRY BANNOCK:   Because you love it.  Once you do it, and you really love it, you never want to stop.

The ancient Greeks, who had a different god for virtually everything, gave the responsibility for parades to a deity known as Dionysus.  In Latin he was called Bacchus.  And in New Orleans he is honored with his own Krewe.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Bacchus was a foreigner who came from outside the city.  He invaded the village and forced everybody to stop their normal activities.  The entire population had to give up what they were doing and attend to his needs for wine, women, song, and a lustful life -- pretty much what modern Mardi Gras does to New Orleans.

Bacchus was the god of “standing outside,” which is to say in one sense he stood for things that were outside the city, but he also represented the idea of being outside your real self.  Bacchus was often presented in his role as the god of wine.  When someone has had too much to drink, his behavior can change to a point where he appears to be “outside his normal self.”  Bacchus was also the god of the theater, which is an essential element in Carnival. You dress up and pretend you are somebody that you are not.  You step outside yourself.  You lose yourself, either in the part you are playing or in the crowd that is looking on.  He is the personification of Chaos, and his presence is felt in every Carnival around the world.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Bacchus presents a rather interesting collection of personal habits.  He’s always presenting himself as something he is not... he is perpetually lost in his own image of who he wants to be... and he is always willing to disrupt everything.  He is Chaos personified.  I’m surprised he’s not the patron god of the U.S. Senate.  Just a joke -- but it’s just the kind of joke that you are supposed to make at Carnival.  Remember this whole thing is about poking fun at the powerful.

This is the Mardi Gras Museum in Rivertown, near the New Orleans International Airport, which is about twenty minutes from downtown.  It’s open every day except Monday.  And this is Arthur Hardy, an expert on Mardi Gras and the publisher of the annual Mardi Gras Guide.

ARTHUR HARDY:  We’re now going into a room that’s kind of like a funhouse, almost an old visiting carnival-style affair.  This is called our Peek Show, where kids can get in here and pretend they’re costumed for Mardi Gras.

BURT WOLF:   What about adults who behave like kids?

ARTHUR HARDY:  They’re welcome too. ... This part of the Mardi Gras Museum, Burt, replicates a French Quarter scene, with an authentic balcony, and a very famous float from the Rex Parade.  As you know, Carnival’s filled with symbolism, and this fatted bull or ox represents the last meat eaten before Lent starts on Ash Wednesday.

BURT WOLF:   Hundreds of years ago in Europe, that was always a real ox --


BURT WOLF:   -- and they would cut it up at the end and distribute the food.

ARTHUR HARDY:  And the peasants would have a party.  Absolutely.

BURT WOLF:   And now we make it in plastic.  You think they’re trying to tell us something about the quality of our food?

ARTHUR HARDY:  I think so! ... One of my favorite parts of the Mardi Gras Museum, Burt, is this timeline, which works in reverse.  It starts with Mardi Gras last year and goes all the way back into really prehistoric times.  And there’s so many different objects on the timeline because Mardi Gras has so many different components.  A lot of it is really gaudy, some of it is beautiful.  Nineteenth Century invitations to Mardi Gras balls were actually made in Paris; they were die-cut and they’re collector’s items today.  Now we don’t spend quite that much time or money or artistic effort with our pieces of future memorabilia, but it’s still a celebration that’s chronicled on many different levels -- from this morning’s newspaper to things that came about perhaps a hundred and fifty, a hundred and sixty years ago. ...  Mardi Gras is filled with contradictions.  You know, it’s called The World’s Greatest Free Show, and yet seven hundred million dollars is spent on it.  You would think we don’t want tourists to come; we do, but it’s a party the city throws for itself, and it would continue even if visitors didn’t come -- although it’s a world-class tourist attraction.  We hold it on a different date each year, and that would almost seem to discourage people from coming.  It has its own vocabulary, its own traditions.  It’s a hard thing to understand, but once you come, you’re hooked.  You know, the neat thing about Mardi Gras is there are no spectators; everybody’s a participant.  And to kind of transform yourself into the spirit, we ask you to wear a costume or a mask.  So why don’t you try one on, see if you can find something that fits?

BURT WOLF:   Well, let’s see... am I doing this properly?

ARTHUR HARDY:  Oh, yeah.  Oh, that’s a winner.

BURT WOLF:   Yeah?

ARTHUR HARDY:  That is you.                  

BURT WOLF:   Doesn’t it clash a little bit with my handkerchief?

ARTHUR HARDY:  That’s the idea!  Burt, I think the one point I’d like everybody to get out of this is if you really want to know Mardi Gras, you can’t study it, you can’t read about it, you can’t look at films -- you’ve got to come here and experience it.  It’s like nothing else on Earth, and I hope everybody has a chance, at least one time, to be in New Orleans at Mardi Gras.  It’s just wonderful.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  All festivals have a job to do and Mardi Gras is no exception.  The most important job for Mardi Gras is to turn everything upside-down, to take the recognizable everyday structure of our lives, toss it out, and replace it with utter chaos.  But chaos is only left in charge for a brief time.  And it is always presented in a way that is clearly designed to teach everyone that madness, rebellion and confusion are things that they do not want in their lives on a regular basis. 

A contrast is set up to make the point that order and organization are essential for the survival of the community, and they must be reestablished at the end of Mardi Gras.

POLICEMAN’S VOICE:  “Mardi Gras is officially over; would you please clear the streets?”

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Carnival tried to give all the elements of  the society a sense that they had some part of the action.  And I hope you will join us next time and take some part of our action, as we travel around the world looking at the gatherings and celebrations that mark the passages of our lives.  I’m Burt Wolf.